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Jim Sandman L’76 trains future legal leaders in innovative ‘Leadership in Law’ course

December 08, 2021

Sandman’s illustrious legal career has been defined by leadership positions across a myriad of sectors.

Lawyers become leaders in a wide variety of organizations – not just in law firms and corporate legal departments, but in business, academia, government, public interest organizations and non-profits, community organizations, and bar associations,” said Jim Sandman L’76, Distinguished Lecturer and Senior Consultant to the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. “But unlike other professions, law doesn’t do a very good job of training people to be leaders,” he added.

To address this issue, Sandman developed “Leadership in Law,” a course designed not with the intention of “filling the gap” of intentional, incremental leadership training, but rather to train students to look for opportunities for growth from the time they launch their careers.

“We talk about whether leadership is innate or whether it can be learned – and it can be learned, but it tends not to be learned if leadership development happens only randomly as one’s career unfolds,” Sandman said. “I’ve held a number of leadership positions, but I have never had any formal training for leadership. It was all on-the-job training. I wish I’d had the benefit of a course like this.”

Sandman is the President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”), the country’s largest funder of civil legal aid programs, and has enjoyed an impressive career as a leader in various capacities in private practice and public service.

Studying leadership

In studying leadership, the class follows the textbook Leadership for Lawyers by the late Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law professor and pioneer in formalized legal leadership training. Sandman uses case studies from the volume to orient discussions pertaining to a range of different leadership qualities, processes, and challenges.

Sandman uses examples from a variety of sectors and disciplines to account for the broad range of career interests students bring to the class, but he noted that many of the case studies are, in and of themselves, widely applicable for the core leadership questions they raise. For example, as a predicate for discussing moral leadership, the class reads an account of what led a group of Justice Department lawyers to write memos soon after September 11, 2001 that justified exceedingly controversial interrogation techniques – infamously now known as the “torture memos.” Though retrospectively these actions are regarded as failures of moral leadership, the account enables students to engage in conversation about what it would be like to be in the position of those lawyers and how they might approach the scenario differently.

“In the heat of the moment, how would you handle a situation like that? How can you prepare yourself to identify moments of moral testing and ensure that you can achieve the distance to make a good decision, taking everything into account?” Sandman said. “Those are the kinds of things we talk about.”

In addition to reading case studies and engaging in collaborative discussions, students also hear from a thoughtfully selected line-up of guest speakers. Among the leaders this semester’s class heard from are:

  • Colleen Cotter, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland

  • Avis Buchanan, Executive Director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia

  • Kim Koopersmith, Chairperson of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

  • Martha Minow, former Dean of the Harvard Law School; and

  • The Honorable Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the State of New York and of the New York Court of Appeals

After delivering remarks, the speakers take questions from the students regarding unique or difficult leadership challenges they have faced in their careers.

Honing leadership skills

In Sandman’s view, leadership skills are not something that students might need years down the road; they are skills that young professionals can begin to use at the beginnings of — and throughout — their careers.

“There are a lot of opportunities to lead, not just at the tops of organizations, but along the way,” Sandman said. “You’ll be better positioned to be tapped for higher leadership positions if you’ve demonstrated along the way that you have leadership skills and are ready for the next step.”

For Sandman, it is important to engage with students on an individual level and help mentor them on their journeys to become confident, competent leaders. He noted that about half of the class are LLM students, who, as practicing lawyers in their home countries, have encountered both good and bad leadership in their professional lives and draw from those experiences throughout the course. During the semester, students apply course material to their own lived experiences and intended career trajectories in reflective journal entries. After reading the journal entries, Sandman meets with the students individually for one-on-one feedback and conversation.

“One of the most important qualities of a leader is self-awareness – an understanding of how you affect other people, of how other people react to things you do,” Sandman said. “Many people in leadership positions lack self-awareness. They don’t realize how they come off, and they make missteps because of it. I look for self-awareness in students’ journal entries and in my interactions with them. I hope they all complete the course with a much better understanding of leadership qualities, of themselves, and of how they can adapt and adjust to be strong leaders in light of what we’ve studied.”

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